Jean Vigo died at the age of 29. He made a total of four films. Yet his myth sails on.
Ă€ propos de Nice
, one starts with photographic landscape, the omniscient view from above of people, places, and palms, the bird’s-eye view of a port city, divided by the gray ocean on one side and by the white sand, the grays and blacks of buildings, highways, and slow-roving vehicles, on the other. Structure and anti-structure
. The port city as a consequence of the continuous pressure of protean waves upon waves upon waves, amorphous, indissoluble music, beating on the infinitesimal shore, on crystalline sands; and from these sands a city rises, an invisible hand outlines on the white surface of a sun-drenched document the black-grooved streets and the shining life which spawns like a mold on those streets, and the ant-like society, and sub-societies, that solidify in the cracks and crevices of that Mediterranean city, and which parade out on the open beach, where gentlemen and ladies strip down and descend into the ocean, or hide under umbrageous hats or parasols, to escape the heat but also to flee from the social documentarian eye of the camera, behind which Jean Vigo
cracks a Pierrot smile and the glass eye of the brother
of the men with the movie camera
gleams at them in pursuit of symmetries, but also asymmetries, fragments, menageries.
Logic of metaphor: A man burning in the sun is like unto crocodile skin is like unto the ridged white column of a public building. Some do not flee but stare right at you, and some are asleep, their mouths agape. Underneath the skin and clothing of a dapper lady, of a manâ€™s shoe being polished, is more skin, more surface; a naked foot. Seasons of the flesh. The affluent sit down at leisure in the day, do nothing but people-watch and read the paper, or at night they group together in dance-halls and waltz together and watch others waltzing too. Meanwhile, those of the lower classes balance UFO-sized saucers of food on their heads on their way to the street markets, or the children play at games using only their hands, even if their hands are deformed, because they own nothing but their hands, their wit, their words. What brings the two sides of Nice together, the formless ocean and the form-informed city, the sun-devouring wealthy and the shade-desiring poor; what resolves the oppositions carefully anatomized by Vigoâ€™s documentarian eye? Carnival
of course, the Rabelaisian site where structure and anti-structure meet, whose grotesquerie we gaze at from below, enraptured by the crotches and slow-motion dance of glee-drunken bacchantes, whose platform is the open sky and whose republic is one founded on satyric velocity.
If we start with landscape, then we are ripe to continue with the body. The liberated body, at its most beautiful: The body in motion underwater
, swimming, decelerated by the gelatin of the photographic and the gelatin of the chlorinated water. Jean Taris, champion swimmer, becomes a pretext for Vigo to study how the body is dreamed by the resistance of the water, how the body superimposes images in the slow innerspace of water. (In Lâ€™Atalante
, Vigo perfects this technique, gives it, finally, a poetic realism.) But Taris
was merely a physical exercise for the possibilities of the camera; Vigo would have to exorcize, give voice to, his past before taking a step toward the impersonal finality of a feature-length work of art. The son of Miguel Almereyda
, the anarchist who would later be murdered in prison (strangled by the bootlaces his son had gifted him shortly before Almereyda was incarcerated), Vigo conceived of returning to the undying myth of his father and to the vision of the sleepwalkers and lost boys who populated his youth. A youth spent in boarding schools, and perpetually earning a ZĂ©ro de conduite
. Youth redefined as the germ of anarchism, the unblemished root where the anarchic ideal remained pure, untouched by the hideous, sexual politics of the aged. For Vigo, son of Almereyda, would die at an even younger age than his father, and in this forecasting of his own death (a glorious death envisioned as an ascent up a tiled roof by four boys, hands uplifted in joyous praise, up into the afterlife of open sky), he would preserve his intensity and verdure, in tune with the chants of the jubilant, rebellious children he grew up with and understood so well. They were song, and he was the reed. To the church, to the French state, to the empty authority of a false republican ideal embodied by the public education system, Vigo speaks through the mouth of a newly baptized anarchist: Je vous dis Merde
. (Speaking the blessed name of his father, Almereyda, in memoriam.) Crucify the old and the withered; hail the young, the fraternal. An army of Dionysian, pillow-fighting youth
march through a wintry storm of feathers (what parody of the military state!) until they reach the realm of ageless freedom, the realm of cinema.
And, inevitably, martyrship arrives. Only a few weeks into the Gaumont production of L’Atalante, the heavy curtain of winter (the same winter into which his army of delinquents had marched) descends upon Vigoâ€™s fragile constitution. But he insists on real locations, on the contingencies of outside shooting, in spite of the cold rain, the time constraints that the studio imposes on him, and the fever that does not cease flaring up inside his wracked body. He already envisioned the horizon of his death, lying down on a cot and directing his juvenile troops toward glory, when he was not spellbound by orchestral puppets and sonorous masks; but he had to build a barge to take him there, he had to sail it himself down the winding canals of France, singing with his crew Le chant des mariniers and pursuing sunken continents. Paris speaks to him through the radio, on copper wires, in reflections on glass; its avenues shape no single place but are the effects of an electrical current, the phantasmal pieces of a silk-gowned bride glimpsed underwater, the strains of a song heard by chance through the horn of a phonograph. Paris can be found in every place, so long as it is sung aloud; so long as it is chanson. Vigo re-creates his father in PĂ¨re Jules, an element of nature, an affable beast rather than a man, kept warm by smoking tattoos, inhabiting a tiny but florid cabin where all the regions of the earth seem to come together and find rhythmic concretion. A mariner, in despair, runs across the beach, in frantic search for his runaway bride; he finds her, she is the horizon, but he does not know it. The limitless, the auric hair, the smile of Juliette. His body, her body, call each other in the night, and though they are separated by distance in the frame of the story, it is the cinematic frame which brings them into symmetrical intimacy, expressing their pure sexual longing, the lacework shadowed on their skin. When PĂ¨re Jules brings Juliette back and restores order (for only the irrational can achieve the truly rational), Vigo manages to synthesize the realist tradition (the social documentarian vision of the earliest cinema) with its spiritual other, the romantic vernacular of a bygone age; a compositional hypostasis under which all French cinema would thereafter be indexed. â€śJean Vigo is dead at 29.â€ť And in just 4 films does the French cinema receive its patron saint.